Lifestyles of the Rich and Loquacious

Following my label-mate Jim Fallows's advice, I think everyone should read Stephen Marche's piece on, specifically, Niall Ferguson, but, more importantly, on how the industry of opinion works in this country:


The real issue isn't the substance of Ferguson's argument, though, which is shallow and basically exploded by this point in time. It isn't even the question of how such garbage managed to be written and published. It is, rather, why did Ferguson write it? The answer is simple but has profound implications for American intellectual life generally: public speaking. 

Ferguson's critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent's Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson's writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers. 

I have a speaker's agent. I generally give about five or six speeches through them a year. I do a few other talks that aren't really appropriate for an agent. (Visiting a public school, speaking at a book festival for instance.)  At my agency, I'm basically at the bottom end in terms of compensation. But if I did, say,  one of these a week--even at my "low" level--I could take my place among the five (though not the one) percent.

Now, writing and delivering speeches is work. Even after you've gotten a talk down, you generally have to spend a day (or two) at the site of the speech talking, smiling and otherwise entertaining. And the travel is utterly draining. Whenever I come home, I feel like I need a day or two to fully recover. The main reasons I don't do more are: 1.) Lack of opportunity. If you have something to say about business you tend to be a hotter item. 2.) I hate flying. 3.) I hate being away from the writing.

But if you have opportunity, if you don't mind flying, if writing is secondary to you, then you might have what it takes to live the high life. From what I can tell, a large number of America's more prominent pundits fit into that category. These are people who have realized that there is more money in talking than there is in listening.  For this class of "writers" writing isn't the point, so much as having a platform for their headshots, and their ideas. You can imagine the effect this dynamic could have on an opinion class. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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